The savior of California’s coast


A good argument can be made that no one since Father Junipero Serra has had as much impact on coastal development in California as Peter Douglas. Douglas, who died a week ago, wrote and helped pass Proposition 20, the California Coastal Commission initiative, in 1972. He wrote the 1976 Coastal Act, worked for the commission from its early days and was its outspoken executive director for more than 25 years despite often fierce opposition, including a nearly successful attempt by then-Gov. Pete Wilson to get rid of him in 1996.

Douglas emigrated from Germany with his family when he was 8. He was raised in California, and after getting his law degree from UCLA went to work for Assemblyman Alan Sieroty of Beverly Hills. This was during the late 1960s and early 1970s, when builders, corporations and government agencies saw California’s coast as a vast opportunity for development, including massive Orange County-style planned communities in rural areas and quiet beach towns. They planned to expand Highway 1 to four lanes, with major links to the 101; they envisioned a string of nuclear power plants at Malibu, Moss Landing, Bodega Bay and Point Arena, and water projects, including damming all the coastal rivers of Northern California.

One project in the 1960s proved both visionary and transformative, though perhaps not in the way its developers planned. That was Sea Ranch, the lovely bluff-top second-home community built on a sheep farm on the Sonoma County coast.


Sieroty remembers what happened next. “These houses they’d built were beautiful, and the coast was beautiful, except you couldn’t see it unless you owned a home there, so we tried to pass some protection for the coast, and since no one had ever done that, we threw the … problem at Peter.”

By 1971, Douglas had drawn up a bill to ensure public access and protection of not just Sea Ranch’s 10 miles of bluffs and beach but the entire California coast. It was defeated in the Legislature. Frustrated, Douglas, Sieroty and others put coastal protection on the 1972 ballot. The California Coastal Alliance — more than 100 groups, including the League of Women Voters, the Sierra Club and the Longshoremen’s Union — backed Proposition 20. Even though developers and the construction industry, oil companies, utilities and other opponents outspent supporters 100 to 1, they were unable to counter the state’s nascent environmental movement or the public’s memories of the Santa Barbara oil spill three years earlier. The initiative won with 54.5% of the vote. The Coastal Act, which passed on a bipartisan vote four years later, gave permanent status and power under the law to the Coastal Commission.

To prevent the commission from becoming the tool of any single politician or agency, Douglas’ proposition required that voting membership come from different parts of government, with four commissioners appointed by the speaker of the Assembly, four by the Senate Rules Committee and four by the governor. The commission in turn required every coastal county to develop and periodically upgrade a plan to guarantee local protection and public access to the coast.

“After the initiative passed,” Douglas recalled, “speculative subdivisions came to a grinding halt — dozens of ranches like Sea Ranch had been bought up — you had a lot of wealthy speculators who’d invested in [land for] these second-home subdivisions and now realized we wouldn’t approve them. So they went to [then-Gov.] Reagan and said, ‘Help us sell them off.’ So there was a huge upswing in purchases of parks along the coast.”

Under Reagan the state added 145,000 acres of coastal land and two marine reserves to the park system. Today the grand urbanizing schemes of the late 20th century have left only faint marks: a foundation hole dug by PG&E for its “Atomic Park” on Bodega Head, and the hamlet of Shelter Cove with several hundred houses and an airstrip on a wild point of land where 5,000 “golf resort” home sites were once up for sale.

The commission under Douglas became a powerful force for coastal preservation. “When Vandenberg Air Force Base converted to a space launch center and wanted to bring in a water pipe, we said no,” he recalled. “We knew that extra water would have a growth-producing impact because it’s so dry along the coast there.” Instead, the Air Force agreed to establish a water conservation program and open several miles of beach to the public. They even agreed to limit missile launches over the Channel Islands during seal pupping season. In Southern California, the commission denied Koll Corp. a permit to build 900 homes on the Bolsa Chica wetlands. (That is what set off Wilson’s attempt to oust Douglas.)


More recently, in 2011, a developer was denied a permit to build 111 houses on the upper wetlands. And tough commission standards helped ensure new open-space agreements and acquisitions for the public in areas such as Fort Ord and the Hearst Ranch on the central coast, instead of allowing them to be swallowed by multibillion-dollar gated developments.

Still, the commission has been criticized for a number of its actions, including permitting a beachfront hotel in Half Moon Bay and strong-arming property owners to provide public access corridors in exchange for allowing any property improvements.

Overall, in its 30 years, the Coastal Commission has proved a major force in guaranteeing that California retains for all its citizens’ use some of the most spectacular coastline on Earth. A World Bank team that visited the state last year rated California as having the best coastal protection in the world and expressed amazement that the commission had never been captured by the industries it regulates.

“This coast is still a place people identify as being theirs, it’s a precious treasure, and our job is to protect it for them,” Peter Douglas told me before he retired in 2011.

In recent years Douglas battled cancer with a lot more Buddhist grace and equanimity than he ever showed any politician or developer.

“The coast is never saved. The coast is always being saved,” he liked to say. With his passing, saving it is now up to all of us.

David Helvarg is executive director of the Blue Frontier Campaign. His book, “The Golden Shore: — California’s Love Affair With the Sea,” will be published in 2013.